SALT LAKE CITY -- Even in high school and college, Shane Battier never particularly enjoyed the early portions of basketball seasons.
“Necessary evils,” Battier calls them.
Then along came this season, which is finally in February but still inching along at a pace somewhere between boredom and Groundhog Day. The Heat is second place in the Eastern Conference standings and nearly 10 games ahead of the third-place Atlanta Hawks.
Challenges, at this point, seem contrived.
For example, the Heat plays just three home games in February. That would be a potential problem if the Heat was locked in a battle for playoff seeding like the teams out West. But in the Eastern Conference this season, it’s really nothing more than an inconvenience.
The Heat is more entrenched in its current projected playoff spot than any other team in the NBA.
“I’m glad February is here,” Battier said. “I’ve never liked the early part of the season. In college, it was tough because we played all these teams that we were supposed to beat by 30, and some of our worst film sessions at Duke were when we only beat a team by 15 and we were supposed to beat them by 30.
“It was about standard of play and all that stuff. Once you get to conference, you didn’t have to get motivated to play and every game was a big game. It was much better. That’s sort of the same thing in the NBA in February.”
That’s exactly where the Heat finds itself in the middle of this mega road trip. What Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called “standard of play,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra simply refers to as consistency. The Heat left Miami searching for it after the first half a season that was more about injury prevention than anything else. With his full roster now healthy and available for the fourth game in a row, Spoelstra has trimmed his rotation and the Heat is beginning to show glimpses of its championship pedigree.
Still, there are relapses. The Heat allowed 37 points to the Clippers in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s victory at Staples Center.
“I hope we build more consistency,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what we’re looking to do on this road trip. It’s a great opportunity for us to build on that side of the court and try to come away with some tough wins. You have to be able to defend on the road.”
Of course, even that critique from Spoelstra is relative. After all, it was just the fourth time this season the Clippers have lost at home.
“There are signs of improvement,” Battier said. “We’re making progress, I think. Now we just need to put together not days or games but weeks of consistency, and that’s sort of the next step for us.”
The Heat is at its best defensively when it “aware,” Battier said. When the awareness is lacking, it’s easy to spot because the Heat’s frenetic style of defense is a team effort.
“When we’re aware, there is a marked difference in our play,” Battier said. “When we’re aware of situations, especially defensively — aware of rotations, aware of spacing, it works. When we’re not aware, that’s when we look bad and look like Keystone Cops out there on defense.”
Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem hasn’t been watching from the bench over the last few weeks, but he confident, based on previous seasons, that he will be back in the mix soon enough.
“I don’t know everything, I’m not a prophet, but since this team has been together, there’s some point in the season, whether it be playoffs or regular season, where I’ve had to step up for us,” Haslem said. “So whether it be Chicago three years ago or Indiana the last two years, there’s been a point with these guys when they have needed me. So I got to stay ready.”
New addition Toney Douglas isn’t playing regular minutes at this point in the season, but Spoelstra has found spot minutes for the guard in recent games. Douglas has played a few minutes in three of the Heat’s last four games.
“He’s available and he’s in uniform, so that’s the way I look at it,” Spoelstra said. “He’s ready, and if we need him, he’ll play. Just like the other night. I told him, it might be those last 30 seconds of foul trouble in the half. You just have to stay ready.”